Twelve years ago today my second-youngest, first-arriving son was born in a smalltown county seat hospital. I was not there. His mother was not there. His birth mother, however, was very present. Anthony was born on her seventeenth birthday. Except for the first twenty months of his life, Anthony has been a part of our lives. We have watched him grow, acquire speech (and my, he has been successful in acquiring speech, as anyone who knows him can attest) and experience progressively more independence in his life. But we have heard little and known little about his birth mother.
We knew her at the tender age of eighteen, going on nineteen, when she struggled to choose between her own emerging young adulthood and her son's destiny. Her life, like her mother's before her, had been day upon day of want, distress and perplexity. Our experiences with her were limited, and we experienced her as brash, oppositional and fiercely independent. Life as she had experienced it produced a tough, stubborn, resilient young woman. She was not an evil person, not a vile person, not an unloving (albeit too young) mother. She was, simply, eighteen going on nineteen, and not well-equipped by environmental background, genetic inheritance or current circumstance to care for a young child. She was, by all measures, a child herself.
And so I understood when, after a few weeks, she simply stopped coming to visit her toddler son. I understood, but not really. I understood what it was like to be nineteen years ago, with the desire to be carefree, drinking in the lustiness of independence and cavorting in the newness of each day. But I did not understand how a mother could simply move on in life without her child.
In the course of time we met her mother, our son's birth grandmother, and began to understand pragmatically what we had learned in our academic pursuits about generational poverty and chemical addiction. Our son's birth grandmother expressed concern about her daughter and her grandson, but by her own admission did not have what it took to raise either of them. She told us how challenging Anthony's birth mother had been to care for, her staccatoed words and sunken eyes undergirding the helplessness of her life situation. And so I understood better why Anthony's birth mother decided he would be better off with us. I understood, but not really. Each day as I watched her curly-haired, blue-eyed, dimpled darling grow more and more attached to us, I felt dread in the pit of my stomach wondering when she might return to "reclaim her prize," for that is how she seemed to understand the gift of her son.
My dread would soon be replaced with joyous anticipation as the days ticked by toward the opportunity for us to adopt Anthony. The legal necessities ensued ... court hearings ... findings of neglect and abandonment ... the "termination of parental rights" ... the petition to adopt ... the adoption finalization. The recognition that this young gift plopped into our lives through the foster care system was now our responsibility and joy brings tears to my eyes and delight in my heart. (On most days; on some days it's simply tears that come to my eyes, but that's another blog for another day).
We have heard from Anthony's birth mom one time in the past ten years. About two years ago she and her sister called to alert us to her mother's death. Although we have never discovered the cause of her death or her age, we suspect it was related to lifelong chemical use and that she died far too young. Our estimate is that she was probably no more than five years older than we, which would have put her death in her mid-forties. We, of course, broke the difficult news to Anthony at that time that his Grandma "E" had died, and he broke into primal, angry, pained sobs. At the time I thought the response strange since his contact with Grandma "E" had been sporadic and limited. In a limited way I understand now that his pain at that moment was for more than his birth grandmother's demise. It was his sole connection with his birth history.
So, this morning he and I had breakfast together before school. It is a frigid, 15-degrees-below-zero kind of Minnesota morning, so the coffee shop in which we ate was sparsely populated. We had our pick of seats, enjoyed our food together, before I drove him to his school. Oblivious to my thoughts, I watched as he ate his ham-and-cheese-and-green-pepper omelet, remembering his origins, reflecting upon the past ten years, thanking God for his twelve years of life.
I looked at his curly blond hair, still wet and partially frozen from the early morning cold. I glimpsed his sparkling, bright blue eyes as they furtively darted around the room, taking in all the features. I observed his sleek, nimble fingers as they sliced eggs and created an "omelet sandwich" with his toast. I drank in the smiles in conversation, the dimpled cheeks moving with the chewing of his food, the petite, freckled nose.
I saw the physical features (and emotional exigencies as well) of his birth mother, the tender emotions of his birth father, the nervous energy of his birthgrandmother. There before me as we shared together breakfast on his twelfth birthday I was reminded of his past.
But, God love him, I also saw myself in him this morning. I saw his preoccupation with trivialities, his confounded desire to do the appropriate thing, his sensitivity to those around him. In a moment of clouded uncertainty, I saw the past and the present. And, I trust, I will continue to see the future in his life as I work to overlook his inherited challenges, discipline his acquired difficulties, and shape his yet-to-be potential. I am profoundly grateful today that his birthmother chose to give him birth, and that we are working hard to give him life.
Happy birthday, Anthony. Happy birthday, Anthony's birth mom. Wherever you might be.